Goodbye Christopher Robin is a sometimes moving but hard-edged drama from director Simon Curtis. It is promoted as being, of course, based on a true story, and it is indeed right until it cops out a little on the truth.
Nevertheless the strong cast and a welcome streak of anti-sentimentality keep it mostly compelling, and there is a certain harsh intrigue in watching how the creation of Winnie The Pooh, one of the most beloved and sweetly harmless children’s characters ever, was so damn tormented.
A.A. (or Alan Alexander) Milne, a celebrated writer before he went to fight at the Somme in 1916, has returned home to a devastated England, and in the years after the war he struggles with what would now be diagnosed as PTSD, which isn’t easy, what with all that English restraint. As subtly played by Domhnall Gleeson, he’s a haunted man who flinches at the sound of bursting balloons and imagines himself in trenches with corpses (a striking moment in a PG-rated film), and even his understanding wife Daphne (Margot Robbie, a long way from Suicide Squad) can’t get through to him at times.
When Daphne has a son (although she wanted a daughter), montages kick in as nanny Olive (or ‘Nou’, and played by Kelly Macdonald) is hired and present as the child — variously named Christopher Robin Milne or Moon, or just plain Billy — grows up. Modern audiences might be surprised and somewhat upset at how the kid’s parents keep abandoning him to go away for dinners and holidays, and it’s no wonder that when he’s eight years old he prefers Nou to his Mum and is scared of his moody Dad.
As Alan sets about writing an anti-war book and the frustrated Daphne storms out of the country house in Sussex, he finds himself forced to deal with his son, who for most of the narrative is played by the very fine (and authentic-looking) Will Tilston in his first film. The boy’s optimism and imagination are naturally disarming, and soon Alan is drawn into a fantasy world they create together which involves Christopher’s stuffed toys – a bear, a donkey, a pig, others and Christopher himself.
This passage is very charming, if obvious, and yet there’s always darkness here. When Alan writes about Christopher and his animals, the family experiences a kind of frightening celebrity that was virtually unknown at the time. And while the real Christopher never truly forgave his Dad for ruining his youth (and Alan never forgave Christopher for never forgiving him), there has to be some kind of hatchet-burying here, no matter how stilted and English it all is. After all, damn it, this is Winnie The Pooh’s genesis we’re talking about.
With good work from Gleeson, Robbie (more glamourous than the real thing but just as mean), Macdonald, young Tilston and Stephen Campbell Moore as the also-traumatised Ernest (Alan’s friend who became his illustrator), this one isn’t for kids weaned on the Disney-animated Pooh stories. It’s for adults who now identify with Christopher, a fairly tortured lad whose childhood was anything but magical.
Rated PG. Goodbye Christopher Robin is in cinemas now.